Con Brio: The Best New Live Band in America?

Mike Mannon

There’s a preciousness to McCarter and the rest of the mostly young band. You want to freeze the moment, to make sure they are taking it all in too. Because it’s going to change.

On the drive down through the hills on the way to the Austin City Limits Festival, I was reflecting how satisfying it would be to see young guitar slinger Gary Clark, Jr. ride back into his hometown, triumphant in front of 75,000 or so, and take his rightful seat as the new king of the blues. To be honest, it's been too long since a young, preternaturally talented African American blues guitar player reclaimed that title.

And it was both touching and thrilling.

But on the drive back out, what I couldn't get out of my head was the mind-blowing surprise several hours earlier of young Ziek McCarter, frontman of the San Francisco-based R&B soul outfit Con Brio. Quite simply, no one the first weekend of Austin City Limits Festival touched them.

In fact, in a summer filled with seeing incendiary performances from sheds to festivals to theatres, there's no set, no band, no performer that sticks with me like the raw acrobatic sexuality and power of 23-year-old McCarter. Ab-ing it up D'Angelo style, sliding and splitting like a young James Brown, taking the crowd, up, up like Sly Stone, back-flipping (!) like, well, no one I suppose.

And all of it, in perfect time, hitting all the moves, the minute and the oversized, a whirling dervish of fringe, scarves, and leather who somehow always made it back to the mic on the count to hit the next soaring vocal.

On the strength of just a single six-song self-produced EP, Kiss the Sun, Con Brio churned out the set that renewed your faith in post-millennial American music.

It’s not easy working a sleepy, half-stoned, mostly white crowd into a sweating, shouting frenzy within half a song—and keeping them, hanging, suspended in time for a whole set. But that’s what Con Brio did last Friday afternoon in Zilker Park.

Con Brio was enthralling, especially McCarter. It's a feeling I haven't had since seeing a 16-year-old Derek Trucks render a bunch of unaware bar patrons slack-jawed more than 20 years ago now. While watching Con Brio, I kept looking around the tent, searching the faces: "you're seeing this right? You get what's happening?" And they were. It was hard not to be swept up in it all.

What’s also great is that guitar player Benjamin Andrews has the patience of a seasoned bluesman. There were glimpses of his prowess throughout, but for most of the set, he let McCarter and the crazed horn section work the crowd to a crescendo. When he unleashed a long, bluesy solo in the set’s final song, the assembled lost their minds. This kind of patience is rare in an outfit so young. The stagecraft seems at once rehearsed to perfection and absolutely bonkers, which is a good combo.

After the set, McCarter told me of growing up in Texas, aware of the hugeness of ACL, but never having the chance to attend. “This is my first one man. It’s incredible. To be here, and to be on stage, is just unbelievable. Today was my first backflip. I told myself I had to save it for Austin.”

There’s a preciousness to McCarter and the rest of the mostly young band. You want to freeze the moment, to make sure they are taking it all in too. Because it’s going to change.

Con Brio has chosen well with relative veteran Jonathan Kirchner on bass, who grounds the rhythm section so their frontman can do his thing. But the rest of the crew is all craze and face-splitting grins as they churn out a groove and McCarter burns the joint up.

There’s an absolutely liquid horn section, featuring trumpet player Brendan Liu stalking the stage looking like he's going to head butt an amp at any moment. The theatrical antics actually add to the flavor and the hype of things.

If all this sounds like a lot of fun, it is. There’s a very slight wink and a nod about it, but only very slight. This is a group of young players that clearly worships at the altar of a young-ish Michael Jackson and Stevie Ray Vaughn.

There’s a rawness to McCarter too, of course. At 23 that comes with the territory; you do a round-off into a split, pop up and hit a high A. But as his voice matures, and he begins to lose some of the small holes at the higher octaves, how far can this already polished young band go?

Alongside his grinning drummer Andrew Laubacher, Ziek McCarter assessed it post-show with a little bit of awe himself: “That show was a pivotal moment for me, for us all. To have some people who knew us a little bit and were actually singing our songs back at us...”

Here's what I know: there's a can't-miss kid, with a pretty damn good band backing him up, playing a small joint somewhere around America in the next couple of months who you need to get off your ass and see. You’re not going to be able to afford, or get, the tickets soon.

Mike Mannon travels the backroads of America to write about roots music and culture for sites like No Depression and Live for Live Music. He is the president of Writing Dynamics, Inc. and Chief Storyteller for 3-Minute Storyteller.





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